Let’s face it, our first experience with History is that it is a course that we have to take in order to graduate. As a junior and senior high school student we are confronted with American history, state history and perhaps even a general course in western civilization or world history. We didn’t have a choice. And the fact that we are forced to take history puts us on the offensive. We begin to build that grandiose brick wall that will prevent us from getting anything important out of history. The main problem as I see it, is not history itself. The study of history can be fun. But there’s only one thing that can make our first experience with history a miserable thing indeed: and that’s a poor instructor. I was fortunate. I managed to have a number of excellent history instructors throughout my high school years and this was at a time when I was leaning toward the physical sciences, geology and biology to be exact. I might not have been an excellent history student, but I do remember having excellent history teachers.
Fine. That’s my experience. But experience aside, why study history in the first place? What could history offer the business major? the student intending to study web page development? the student taking her first psychology class? or pre-med student? or the lawyer? or the worker on the shop floor? Well, simply stated, everything has a history, whether we like it or not. Even history itself has a history. Try hard as we might, we can’t escape the past. We can’t let go of the past. And we celebrate the past all the time.
You may have been told that we study history so that we won’t repeat the mistakes of the past. This is the wishful thinking school of historical interpretation. It’s too clean. If we have learned from the past then over the centuries we ought to have accumulated so much knowledge that things like war, poverty, injustice and immorality ought not to exist. Of course, we’ve still got a long way to go in this respect.
You may also have heard that everything repeats itself, so if we study the past, we can be sure to know something of the future. I don’t hold to this view either. To insist that the study of the past will reveal something of the future is a nice idea, but what I really want to know about is the present. History cannot “tell” the future. History can, on the other hand, reveal all that is the present. So, faced as we are with the question “why study history?” I can only hope to answer by telling you why I study history.
Well first off, by studying history you can study anything for the simple reason that everything has a history: ideas, wars, numbers, races, windsurfing, coal miners, pencils, motherhood and yes, even toilet-training. I first began to appreciate the study of history as an undergraduate studying political philosophy at Boston University. I was pretty keen on Plato, Aquinas, Dante, Hobbes, Locke, Godwin, Marx, Mill and a host of other “greats.” But what I soon discovered was that my lack of understanding of history, i.e. the actual historical context in which these writers conceived and executed their theoretical work, made my understanding of their philosophy one-sided. Sure, I knew what they had to say about liberty, or the proletariat, or monarchy or the franchise. But what was the historical environment that gave rise to their ideas? Ideas are not akin to balloons hanging from the ceiling of Clio’s den, waiting to be retrieved by a Marx, a Mill or a Plato. Ideas have a history. They undergo a process of development. They change, are modified, are distributed or are forgotten only to reappear years, decades or perhaps even centuries later.
Once I realized this fact it was quite natural that I turn my attention to history itself. And why not? I could still study Marx or Mill or Plato. Only this time I could do it from the ground up, so to speak. This sort of approach makes me better able to visualize history in a different way. It gives some sense of “pastness” to the past.
But why do I bother? What’s the point? Well, for me, it’s a Socratic issue. Socrates was a man of knowledge but not that much knowledge. As a freshman in high school you probably knew more than Socrates. But, Socrates was a wise man. He had wisdom because he knew only one thing: that he knew nothing. His “job,” so to speak, was to question the Athenian youth. It was not enough to know something. You had to know why you knew it. And this, of course, brought him to the greatest question of all: what is knowledge? What can we know? Well, for Socrates, again, his knowledge consisted in the realization that he knew nothing. This Socratic irony leaves us rather high and dry but I think there is a greater issue at stake here.
For Socrates, perhaps the highest virtue can be summed up in the phrase, “Know thyself.” In other words, of all the things in the phenomenal world, there is not one so important as yourself. To know yourself means to be aware of what it is that makes you who you are. And in this respect, the one thing which reveals this knowledge is history. But people do not live alone, they live in society. And it is in society that the individual comes into contact with other individuals, all of whom are on the same quest, in varying degrees. So, for Socrates, knowledge of self does not hinge upon reflection or introspection, but conversation, hence the Socratic dialogue.
The Socratic dialogue implies that instructor and student meet on an equal footing. Dialogue means conversation between two or more people. And what is the point of Socratic dialogue? Improvement. Self-improvement of the instructor and self-improvement of the student.
So why do I study history? or why do I teach history? Well, for me it’s a form of selfishness. I wish to improve myself. And by improving myself I also improve others. This classical pedagogical method is called the Socratic method. If your instructor isn’t at least familiar with it, then I’m afraid your historical education is going to suffer as a result.
Can you learn history without the Socratic dialogue as your guide? Yes, it can be done. All I am trying to suggest here is that your experience with history will be a much richer one if you keep in mind that history means self-knowledge and as students, that should be one of the most important things to you.